Steve Abrams envisions long lines of customers for his vanilla cupcakes and banana pudding when his Magnolia Bakery opens this summer at Orlando Avenue and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, his first location outside New York.
Many Angelenos are drooling in anticipation, even those irked by the knowledge that the addition of the popular bakery will make already scarce parking even harder to find in the densely packed neighborhood.
"I like the fact that Magnolia is coming in, but the reality is the public is being duped," said Danielle Elliott, a Realtor who has complained vociferously to the city about the dearth of parking. "The area just cannot accommodate any more restaurants."
Abrams, accustomed to the Big Apple's walkability, couldn't agree more about his first foray into the Big Orange's car culture. He said he has been taken aback by the hostility residents have displayed at community meetings.
"I feel a little bushwhacked," he said. "This is an ongoing problem for the city of Los Angeles, but for a guy like me coming in new, it's a new problem."
The problem is phantom, or fictitious, parking.
To meet city requirements, restaurant owners seeking to open or expand must line up parking spaces, even when there aren't enough to go around for the scores of businesses needing them. The city often grants exceptions, reducing the required number of spaces or increasing the distance the parking can be from a business.
Beleaguered owners sometimes claim spots that belong to other cafes, clothing shops or dry cleaners. Critics of the practice call it double dipping. Although the problem is widespread throughout the city, residents say it is particularly pronounced along Melrose and Fairfax avenues, Beverly Boulevard and 3rd Street.
"Several restaurants are using identical spaces," said Robert Cherno, an activist who met Wednesday with the city's chief zoning administrator to air his gripes. After analyzing a number of cases, Cherno said he concluded that the city is hundreds of parking spaces short, particularly on weekends.
City planners freely acknowledge that the condition forces customers, residents and valets to vie for spaces on crowded streets — with the result that drivers make illegal U-turns and clog neighborhoods by circling blocks. Residents complain that valets also park on residential streets, occasionally blocking driveways and alleys.
In areas heavy on valet parking, "it's normal to find lots of broken parking meters," said Mott Smith, a planning consultant with Civic Enterprise Associates. "On West 3rd Street, every time we check, about half the meters have been vandalized." The suspicion, he said, is that valets disable the meters so that they can use the spaces.
"There's definitely a problem," said Michael LoGrande, chief zoning administrator in the city's Planning Department. "We have some old commercial buildings with very successful businesses in them, and behind them you have … apartments. They were built under old parking standards, and the amount of parking is lacking compared to what we need today."
After years of fielding complaints from residents, the city is slowly taking steps to ease the problem. Councilman Paul Koretz said his office has begun compiling a database to keep track of where spaces are and who has the rights to them.
To date, no such tracking system has existed. "Businesses are put in the position of lying to the city," Elliott said, "which is more than happy to let them to get the revenues."
Separately, Smith has been spearheading a "public valet" program on 3rd Street with what he said is a company that "we know operates responsibly." The first stand recently began operating on weekends at La Jolla Avenue, and a second stand is expected to open within three months.
"We're signing up new restaurants and sponsors as we speak," he said, acknowledging that it has been difficult to win businesses over. The program is using spaces at the nearby Beverly Connection mall, but Smith said it was too early to know whether the idea was working.
Smith said the parking problem can be solved, but "it requires moving beyond pointing fingers."
"That's the phase we're in in Los Angeles," he said. "The neighbors are pointing fingers legitimately at people who are stretching the truth in their planning applications."
But, he added, "there's nothing a planning commission can do that will deal with parking congestion in neighborhoods. You actually have to manage parking — supply, pricing and enforcement."
Again, Abrams of Magnolia Bakery couldn't agree more. He said he expected a warm welcome for his business — featured in the "Sex and the City" episode in which Carrie, munching a pink-frosted cupcake while perched on an outdoor bench in front of the Greenwich Village institution, announced her crush on Aiden to gal pal Miranda.
After all, Abrams told residents, he would be bringing 60 jobs, $1.3 million in payroll and, potentially, half a million dollars in tax revenue during a time of economic distress. Many locals have signed letters of support for his indoor and outdoor seating plans, but he said he was surprised by activists' "vitriol."
Abrams said he has lined up some exclusive parking spaces and plans to sponsor a valet stand — at a projected cost of as much as $30,000 a year.
"For me, this is a nightmare," he said. "I'm a reasonable guy with a huge investment looking to bring joy. … [But] the tensions are high, and I'm in the middle of someone else's battle."